For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Unearthing "54"

February 17, 2015

When Film & Video Professor Mark Christopher’s film “54” premiered in 1998, half of it remained behind on the cutting room floor due to editing by Miramax, the film’s production company and distributor. The movie tells the story of hedonistic life at the iconic nightclub and palace of disco fantasy, Studio 54, and starred Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayak, Mike Myers and Neve Campbell. The film was Christopher’s directorial debut and was met with mixed reviews and lackluster box office returns, due to the aggressive cutting of scenes dubbed too edgy for the times. After more than a decade of lobbying Miramax, Christopher and his team were finally able to create and release a director’s cut of the film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 10 to packed screenings and enthusiastic reviews. In a review of the film in Berlin, the Guardian writes, “54: The Director’s Cut represents an act of jubilant resurrection. It will finally get its day in the spotlight, or beneath the glitterball.”

In the original “54,” audiences saw a glittery 89-minutes of sex, drugs and disco driven by the love story of Phillippe’s character (Shane, the bartender) and Campbell’s (Julie, the soap star). What they didn’t see was 45 minutes of Christopher’s original footage that told a much grittier, true-to-the-era story of Studio 54 from the eyes of the kids who worked there: a bartender (Phillippe), a coat check girl (Hayek) and a bus boy (Meyer) —who found themselves in a steamy love triangle. That storyline was cut by the studio before the film debuted. In its place, 25 minutes of plot-altering new footage and a voiceover by Phillippe put the finishing touches on what audiences saw in theaters.

“Maybe the film was ahead of its time, both in its portrayal of gay and bisexual characters and the fact that it was a drama with flawed leading characters—you didn’t see much of that back then. It was too edgy, so they rounded the edges for the theaters,” Christopher told the Drexel Newsblog. Following his long-time lobbying of Miramax alongside associate producer Jonathan King (DREAMGIRLS, LINCOLN, THE HELP), re-sharpening the edges of the film required painstaking restoration. “In a lot of ways it was harder making the director’s cut than the original,” Christopher said.

Filming in the 1990s meant using 35 mm film, and restoring a feature-length picture like “54” would require tracking down a huge amount of negative. Christopher’s team first needed to find the VHS dailies to identify the required shots to be pulled from the original negative. A pallet of VHS tapes marked “to be destroyed” was found at the last second, making it possible to create the director’s cut. Working with the original negative and the salvaged dailies, they once again wove together the story of the bartender, the busboy and the coat-check girl at New York’s Studio 54.

The new version is 105 minutes long and a lot darker in its portrayal of the legendary nightclub. It has also now been digitized for HD screening in all its gritty, glittery glory, and includes a voiceover introduction recently re-recorded by Phillippe, now 40, looking back at what it was like to be 19 years old and at the center of New York’s disco scene.

The director’s cut will be screened at the Guadalajara International Film Festival on March 13 and the British Film Institute on March 27-28, with its U.S. premiere in April and several international film festivals to follow. Click here to read New York Magazine’s article on the making of the director’s cut.